For the past six months, most of our attention has been focused on how to avoid catching COVID-19, and how to help the people who do contract it survive. What's getting less attention is what happens after you've recovered from the disease. But as of press time, 2,153,726 people have recovered from coronavirus. And many are experiencing unexpectedly long-lasting and intense symptoms.
"This is a very real issue," says Paul Pottinger, MD, director of the Infectious Diseases & Tropical Medicine Clinic at the UW Medical Center. "Infectious disease doctors around the country have known for a long time that certain viral infections can do this. It's not unique to COVID, which is good news — it gives me hope."
While there are no official figures yet on how common persistent symptoms of coronavirus are, Dr. Pottinger says that one in four people who'd had the SARS-CoV-1 virus (which is similar to SARS-CoV-2, the strain that's causing the current pandemic) were still experiencing symptoms a month after recovery. In a recent study, two to three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19, 35% of people still didn't feel back to normal, according to a report on the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention site. Another new paper found that around 75% of recovered COVID-19 patients had structural changes to their hearts, two months after recovering.
"We don't know why it happens. It's a neglected area of science. But it's very real," Dr. Pottinger says. "It may be that these patients survived the viral infection because they have a very robust, active immune response. That kills off the infection, but it has consequences for the entire body."
He says the repercussions of this immune response likely include long-term symptoms such as chronic, debilitating fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances.
Dr. Pottinger adds that many COVID-19 survivors also report that their sense of smell and taste remain altered for weeks or months. "The olfactory nerves that provide us with a sense of smell can be harmed by the virus, and nerves are slow to grow," he explains. "It remains to be determined whether all those people will make a full recovery, but I wouldn't lose hope."
Another common issue is chest pain, shortness of breath, and difficulty exercising. "It makes perfect sense. For some patients, the virus goes into the lungs. When that happens, it may cause collateral damage," Dr. Pottinger says. "Lungs are delicate, but they also have a robust ability to heal themselves, so while we need more time to understand how these patients will make a full recovery of pulmonary function, I'd remain optimistic that they will."
While there's not much people can do to speed up their recovery from symptoms like fatigue and loss of smell, lung repair might be accelerated by exercising, he says. After they get the okay from their doctor, a person suffering from this symptom should start by doing whatever physical activity they can — even just walking for 10 minutes — then gradually push the duration and/or intensity of their activity.
Dr. Pottinger also urges people going through this to reach out to their medical provider to see if additional screenings are necessary. If chest pain is a real problem, for instance, they may need their lung damage assessed; if the mood-related symptoms are debilitating, they may need screening for depression.
He adds that social support is key to recovery: People should tell their loved ones what they're going through, and consider participating in a support group for survivors (some of whom call themselves "long haulers"), which are popping up on online forums, on Facebook, and on Reddit.
"It's still so early in the pandemic. But the fact that we don't understand these disorders and can't treat them doesn't mean they're not real," Dr. Pottinger says. "I want to emphasize: We can't predict who will have bad symptoms, regardless of age, lung health, and other risk factors. We could really break the back of this within six weeks, it just requires everyone to do it. So please, follow the rules regarding covering your face and maintaining personal space," he urges. "Many people really wish they'd never been infected."
Swipe through for the stories of seven such women.